Questions about suffering are probably the most significant queries people ask. For Christians, who believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God, wondering about suffering relates back to God. Where is God when there is suffering? “For God so loved the world…” we say and wonder how God can watch people suffer.
The answer is relatively simple: God is present. God is with the dying woman as she takes her last breath. God is with the victim who suffers unimaginable horrors. God is with the child who will endure a lifetime of learning impairment after drinking lead-tainted water. God is with person who is deported, the one who deports him, and the one who loses his job to a person who violated visa laws. God is with lonely people, whether they are alone or not.
If the answer is so simple, then why is the question so difficult. God is present, but God does not remove suffering. Humanity has wrestled with this idea since the dawn of time. Some, like Rabbi Kushner, see the cause as a limit on God’s power, but that runs counter to the image of the all-powerful God portrayed in the Bible. Some people personify Satan, although Satan versus God sounds like dualism and reduces God to a competitor. Various Calvinist and Reform traditions place suffering within God’s sovereignty. Alas, they say, this is the will of God. Playwright Archibald MacLeish articulates this paradox, “If God is God, he is not good; if God is good, he is not God.” Augustine blames human freedom for the fall. His idea has merit but lacks potency. The answer seems simple, ‘God is present’ we say, but then making sense of suffering becomes problematic.
In the Bible, God responds to suffering in different ways. In Genesis, God creates the world, creates the beauty and bounty of the garden, and then creates massive devastation in the flood. In Exodus, God delivers the people from suffering in Egypt, but is also responsible for drowning the Egyptian army. God is both good and bad. Imagine the Egyptian families waiting for their husbands and fathers, only to learn they drowned while pursuing the Hebrew people.
The Bible provides a complicated picture of God’s relationship to suffering. Different stories reflect different aspects of God’s location in relation to suffering. Whether God occupies a good or a bad place regarding suffering depends on one’s point of view. From an Egyptian perspective, God took away the labor and drowned the army. Christians celebrate because God vanquished the bad guys.
Today, good is us and bad is the other. Defining the other is a moving target. In the 1780s, the English exemplified the other. Terrorism against the English caused celebration and Francis Marion has songs honoring him. In the early twenty-first century, the English are us, our allies, and the other can be Muslims, Hispanics, liberals, or conservatives. People characterize the other as the cause of some suffering and hope for God to vanquish them, just as God drowned the Egyptians. Dehumanizing the other is easy because they do not seem to be human, or us.
Early in Genesis, there is the idea of imago Dei. Humanity is made in the image of God, “male and female, God created them.” Whether a person is a friend or foe, when they suffer, they are people made in the image of God who are suffering. Whether the cause of suffering is limitations on God, human freedom, Satan, their own actions, the actions of others, nature, or something else, God is there in the midst of suffering. God is present, weeping with those who weep and consoling those who need consolation.
People can be God’s presence in times of suffering. People, made in the image of God, and so act and so live as to point to God and remind others that God is there. In Leviticus 19, God-through-Moses instructs the people to leave the edges of the field unharvested; it says, “you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” In this case, the Bible shows God responding to suffering by giving instructions to humans to feed those who do not have the ability or resources to feed themselves.
Where is God when there is suffering? God is present.